Saturday, February 27, 2021

Govt appears blind to issue of news channels inciting riots: SC

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The Supreme Court on Thursday lamented that the Centre appeared “blind” to the growing problem of some news channels inciting riots and violence, underscoring the need for a strong regulatory regime for a crackdown on violators.

“They (TV anchors) can shout anything, in any tenor. We don’t mind that. But we are concerned about broadcasts that can instigate people to riots and violence. There are situations which can take away lives of people and can lead to violence and destruction of public properties. We don’t know why you are blind to this problem,” an SC bench led by Chief Justice of India (CJI) SA Bobde told solicitor general Tushar Mehta.

“Ensuring law and order is an important part of governance. Preventing a particular kind of news at a particular point of time is a part of that (law and order). It is as important as providing lathis to policemen. It is as important as any other tool. But you, as a government, do nothing about it. That worries us,” observed the court.

Mehta was representing the Centre on a clutch of petitions that complained against the alleged demonisation of Muslims by some TV channels. Petitioner Jamiat Ulama I Hind and others had, in particular, referred to a section of news channels that allegedly sought to spread communal hatred against the community over the Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Delhi in March during the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Jamaat meeting ended up being a super-spreader event, one of the first in the country, but it also resulted in skewed coverage on some TV channels.

While Mehta admitted that the regulatory regime was not satisfactory with regard to news channels, the bench was unequivocal that certain news items had the propensity of triggering violence and unrest, and that the government was not doing much. “By saying you (government) are blind, we don’t mean anything offensive but the fact is that you are not doing anything about it. The government’s power to control a particular kind of news at a particular point of time is very important,” the bench, which also included justices AS Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian, told Mehta.

The law officer conceded that the penalty of 1 lakh for violation of the broadcasting code was not sufficient, and that the government is considering creating an independent tribunal for dealing with complaints against news channels.

The court also referred to how the police had to shut down the Internet in some areas of the National Capital Region after the farmers’ tractor rally on January 26 took a violent turn. “Yesterday, you shut down the Internet because of the farmers’ visit to Delhi. We are using a non-controversial term. You had to shut down Internet. These are problems that can arise anywhere. We don’t mind fair and truthful reporting. The problem arises when it is projected in a way to agitate others,” observed the bench.

Advocate Nisha Bhambhani, who appeared for the News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA), submitted that it acted as an independent body for self–regulation of 24×7 news channels that are members of the News BroadThe Supreme Court on Thursday lamented that the Centre appeared “blind” to the growing problem of some news channels inciting riots and violence, underscoring the need for a strong regulatory regime for a crackdown on violators.

“They (TV anchors) can shout anything, in any tenor. We don’t mind that. But we are concerned about broadcasts that can instigate people to riots and violence. There are situations which can take away lives of people and can lead to violence and destruction of public properties. We don’t know why you are blind to this problem,” an SC bench led by Chief Justice of India (CJI) SA Bobde told solicitor general Tushar Mehta.

“Ensuring law and order is an important part of governance. Preventing a particular kind of news at a particular point of time is a part of that (law and order). It is as important as providing lathis to policemen. It is as important as any other tool. But you, as a government, do nothing about it. That worries us,” observed the court.

Mehta was representing the Centre on a clutch of petitions that complained against the alleged demonisation of Muslims by some TV channels. Petitioner Jamiat Ulama I Hind and others had, in particular, referred to a section of news channels that allegedly sought to spread communal hatred against the community over the Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Delhi in March during the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Jamaat meeting ended up being a super-spreader event, one of the first in the country, but it also resulted in skewed coverage on some TV channels.

While Mehta admitted that the regulatory regime was not satisfactory with regard to news channels, the bench was unequivocal that certain news items had the propensity of triggering violence and unrest, and that the government was not doing much. “By saying you (government) are blind, we don’t mean anything offensive but the fact is that you are not doing anything about it. The government’s power to control a particular kind of news at a particular point of time is very important,” the bench, which also included justices AS Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian, told Mehta.

The law officer conceded that the penalty of 1 lakh for violation of the broadcasting code was not sufficient, and that the government is considering creating an independent tribunal for dealing with complaints against news channels.

The court also referred to how the police had to shut down the Internet in some areas of the National Capital Region after the farmers’ tractor rally on January 26 took a violent turn. “Yesterday, you shut down the Internet because of the farmers’ visit to Delhi. We are using a non-controversial term. You had to shut down Internet. These are problems that can arise anywhere. We don’t mind fair and truthful reporting. The problem arises when it is projected in a way to agitate others,” observed the bench.

Advocate Nisha Bhambhani, who appeared for the News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA), submitted that it acted as an independent body for self–regulation of 24×7 news channels that are members of the News Broadcasters Association (NBA). She pointed out that NBSA has its own limitations and that there were certain channels which would gladly cough up 1 lakh, which was the maximum penalty for violations, instead of issuing an apology.

To this, the bench responded: “But here the problem also will be when someone will be willing to issue an apology after telecasting whatever he feels like. This is why it is important to prevent these things.”

Solicitor general Mehta requested the bench to give him some time to bring on record all pertinent laws and rules in this regard. The court adjourned the matter for three weeks, asking all the parties to submit their responses and suggestions.

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